Yo La Tengo interview: "It was a weird, challenging and pleasurable experience. It's nice to find new ways to make music together"
Today sees the release of experimental rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo’s new studio album There’s A Riot Going On. This is their fifteenth since their start in 1984, and in that time they've also released countless EPs, soundtracks and albums under pseudonyms, yet they are still finding new ways to innovate and challenge themselves. For the first time ever on There’s A Riot Going On, the trio recorded and produced the entirety by themselves with no outside pressures or input.
This has resulted in a warm and open-hearted collection with plenty of sonic quirks; you get the feeling the threesome holed up in the studio and wrote these songs as a balm to the car crash that was 2017. We spoke the Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, who also engineered the album, all about how these challenges wrought new ideas and how the album came into being over the course of last year.
I don't think I've ever interviewed with such a dense back catalogue, so first I have to ask, over three decades into your career, what compels you to go back and make another album?
Um... I don't know! I think it's just a part of who we are! What do they call that? It's like an autonomic bodily and mental function for us I think. It just feels like a natural way of expression. I don't know any other way of being.
That's what I expected, I guess! It's good to hear. This time around you went into the studio with nothing written, did it feel different?
Extremely! In 2016, I believe, the company Avid, who is the parent corporation of the company that makes ProTools recording software (they hold the monopoly on recording for everyone), they did a big systems upgrade they rendered their audio interface obsolete, so we could no longer use this piece of equipment that we had used since 2003. I mean, it still worked, works great! I don't know what they were thinking, but that forced us to use a new piece of equipment which we didn’t know how to use really. So we hooked it up and I slowly began to figure out its various quirks, and I would just kinda put microphones up while we were practicing and I would record things, and I just got my bearings as far as engineering and the basic wiring. And some of those tracks from the phase of me trying to figure out how the machine works are on the record!
It was pretty fun to kinda accidentally begin recording an album and have no idea that we were doing that. Later that year we began to work on a film soundtrack for a documentary called Far From The Tree, and we really worked on it for maybe 2 months and did nothing else and composed quite a lot of music for it. When 2017 came around we kinda just kept writing that way, except for ourselves instead of a film. It was really fun and strange and unusual to kind of not be jamming in a traditional guitar, bass, drums sense, but building songs in different ways, doing it together and making decisions together, changing arrangements, editing rather than doing it live. It was a fun and weird and really challenging and very pleasurable experience. I guess it's always nice to find a new way to make music together.
There were no moments of sitting and looking each other like "well, what do we do?" You were inspired by the difficulties.
I think so. I think it seems human that way. I think that's also a part of who we are - like we play a different set every single night that we play. We sit down and write it out by hand and it's never the same way twice. The songs are never exactly the same way every time we play them. Occasionally on tour I'll see left over from the night before we arrived a band's photocopied set list, and the encore is photocopied on there as well, it's like "wow..." I can't speak for that hypothetical band's personal experience, but it's certainly not ours.
This is a question you've probably answered already a bunch, but why is the album called There's A Riot Going On?
Lots of reasons! I'm sure you could come up with one…
Because it doesn't sound like a riot? And also because of... politics.
Um, maybe. To us it does sound like a riot. But I think everyone's right - it's a personal experience.
There's a lot of instrumentals here, as well as all of you singing. How do you decide who's going to sing and when? Do you ever have vocals and then take them off to make it instrumental?
I don't know, now that you mention it... There are definitely songs that begin as instrumentals and stay instrumental for a while, and then all of a sudden we'll change them. Like from Fade the song 'Stupid Things' began as a 13-minute-long instrumental (and there's a version of that that was on the 12" EP for that song), and then one day we just decided to edit it down and came up with a vocal melody and made it into a song that was 3 and a half minutes. I don't think anything is ever completely finished [laughs]. Nothing is ever set in stone forever. I think we like to have the freedom to change things whenever it feels right.
You sometimes start a track and then leave it for months before coming back and finishing it, how does that help the process?
We definitely did that as far as recording There's A Riot Going On. I think that was kind of, if anything, more the freedom that we had to do it, because we recorded the record ourselves, with no fourth person anywhere, it was just us. Until we enlisted John McEntire to mix the record with us nobody else had heard it and nobody knew what we were doing. I guess the freedom of working at our own rehearsal room, where we usually go to practice every day - it doesn't have a nice comfortable couch like most recording studios do - it gave us the freedom to work at our own speed and not be thinking about a recording budget or looking at the clock. I think it allowed us to work on one song for a week and then put it away and then maybe come back to it a month later when we had an idea for it. It didn't have that feeling that's fraught with stress and pressure so much, as far as deadlines - until we eventually enforced a deadline on ourselves because I think we could probably work on one song forever if that was OK!
Do you think this turned into quite a soft album, ambient in places, because of how relaxed you were?
No, none of it felt relaxed. Relaxed in a work sense, but we didn't really set out to make a soothing relaxing album for sleep time [Laughs]. None of the music itself felt like we were trying to soothe anybody. Writing songs together is an intense experience and the last thing you're gonna do is fall asleep.
Which is the most surprising track to you, in terms of how it came about and what the final version sounds like?
The song 'She May She Might' I think falls into that category. That was one of the songs that I was describing that we started to record parts of it when we bought this new piece of equipment. All of the drum tracks from that song, and some other sounds, were recorded just one day a year and a half ago. We never expected that there would actually be a song placed around those elements that we recorded randomly one day. There are loops that run through that song which are also these unusual disparate elements that we put together, and the texture was really exciting and unusual and surprising - but it still felt natural and it felt like us. That was pretty neat.
Let's talk about 'Above The Sound', which is a crazy sounding song with all its close mic'd percussive elements. What's in there?
Jeez, I don't know how many tracks of drums are on there... there's a few! Georgia's playing in a variety of ways with different sticks and different sounds. Her playing is so deeply musical that even when we recorded that session of just her playing that beat by herself I knew it was special, we all knew it was, even though it was just her on drums and kind of an exercise for me technically, but we all knew it was special. I put a little coloured post-it on the folder because I knew that we would come back to it one day. There's also different loops that we manufactured out of things that we recorded, there's innumerable acoustic and electric guitars, there's all sorts of things. Oh my god! Now I can visualise the multi-track of the recording in my head, and trying to organise all the files and it's making me dizzy.
Was that the most challenging track?
Oh no! No, no, no, that was actually one of the easier ones [Laughs].
Which ones were the tough ones?
'You Are Here' and 'Here You Are' were both pretty challenging file management-wise. Those were some pretty involved and elaborate gain structures.
Are you ever the impetus for a song? Do you ever start from the bass and build from there?
Rarely! Maybe a few over the years. I think they all come from the three of us playing together and sharing ideas, and then I can never tell who does something first, it all kind of become a blur.
You guys are truly symbiotic in that way.
Yeah, pretty weird! I think that's why it takes us so long, because we actually work as a group.
You're singing on 'Dream Dream Away'; are there many songs in your catalogue where you sing lead?
There's a few. 'Stockholm Syndrome' from I Can Hear The Heart is one of those, 'Tiny Birds' from Summer Sun... there's a few here and there.
How did it come about that you sang 'Dream Dream Away'?
I think it just worked out that way. I had an idea for a singing part and so I recorded a three-part harmony vocal arrangement, just to kind of demonstrate how it would go, and we basically just kept the demonstration recording that I had done. So, by accident, is I guess how that happened.
It sounds like a lot of this album happened by accident, while at the same time being really painfully painstaking.
[Laughs] Yeah it's a fine line between the two! It was a strange kind of way to get it. I think that by recording ourselves and recording the overall process we were able to preserve the moments of discovering, to capture the exact moment an idea happened or the moment that we figured something out. When things were brand new and coming into existence for the first time we were rolling on all of it. I think that it does have kind of a spontaneous quality, a lot of the music does.
It's definitely not an album that could have been made in the pre-digital age then.
No. I feel like philosophically we took advantage of that.
Is the chattering on 'Shortwave' actually from a shortwave radio?
It's from a human, but he is kind of a human shortwave radio now that I think of it [Laughs]. It's an actual human voice that we treated and mixed so that it would fit in with the overall texture of the piece.
And what's the voicemail on the start of 'Here You Are'?
That's another human! It's just a friend of ours who called and left us a message on the day that we were working on that song, and it was such a great message, and we had microphones set up, and Georgia just held her phone up to the microphone. We wanted to save it, and since we had that session open in vocals that we were recording that day, the track just wound up as part of that session, and it sounded so good with everything else that it became part of the song.
Tell me about the quirky 90-second synth track 'Esportes Casual'.
That was actually something we wrote several years ago and never found a home for it, but it always occupied a special place for us. That was a Casio drum beat - I really feel like the Casio company will never get the respect that they deserve for their fantastic musical inventions, I feel that they're up there with Fender and Marshall and Moog, I think one day the Casio people will really get their due.
When I think about Casio all I think of is cheap wrist watches.
That's true! And a spectacular run of keyboards through the 80s which were magical. There's something about the sounds of their drum machines and keyboards at that time that were very pure. I don't think anything has ever come close to replicating it.
Before we wrap up I always like to ask are there any books or articles or TV or movies that you indulged in while making the album that stick out?
Gosh! Let's see... Man I can hardly remember, it was such a terrible year! We made the album for almost the entirety of 2017, most of the things that I remember about the world outside of our rehearsal and recording studio are just terrible! But there must have been something... right? There must have been something that I liked!
Yeah, I do have something: the radio station WFMU, which comes from the New Jersey/New York City area, right across the river from New York City, I think I listened to it every day. I certainly was listening to it this morning, and I think that's an unbelievable, incredibly valuable resource for anybody who likes music. It's a 24 hour a day fantastic radio station that streams online and archives all their programmes. They have a really great, easy interface app that you can download and listen to anywhere any time. I listen to it in my home every day, I listen to it in the car, when I'm away from home I like to listen to it because it reminds me of being home, and the music is amazing, the people who work there are all volunteers. It's awesome. As far as humanity in 2018 goes, I don't think you could get much better than WFMU.
Yo La Tengo's There's A Riot Going On is out today on Matador Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 16th March 2018.